Congress is back in Washington with a lengthy and controversial to-do list to complete before the end of the year. Gun control, trade deals, and spending bills are all on the agenda and will require a great deal of political capital from both parties to get accomplished before the end of the year.
But not every issue Congress is facing has to be a difficult one.
For example, there is a bill in Congress that nearly three-quarters of the American people agree with, has high-profile supporters on both sides of the aisle, and would save American lives. But given today’s dysfunction and brinkmanship in Congress, there’s been little momentum to pass the bill – despite it having bipartisan support.
The bill is “Tobacco 21” and its sole purpose is to raise the legal age allowed to purchase tobacco from 18 to 21. Unlike some of the other Tobacco 21 bills that include controversial provisions, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Tim Kaine, former Democratic vice-presidential nominee, introduced a simple Tobacco 21 bill months ago. And in the House, Democrat Diana DeGette introduced the same proposal with Republican support. Despite support on both sides of the aisle and in both the House and Senate, however, the bills are still idling without a vote in sight.
It’s obvious why leaders in Congress in both parties support raising the age of purchasing tobacco: It’s widely popular. In fact, a recent Gallup poll found that 73% of Americans support raising the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21.
Even more remarkable, its popularity isn’t based on partisan politics. This is evident if you look at state legislatures across the country that support raising the age and have their own bills, proposals or laws in place. States spanning the political spectrum, like deep red Texas to progressive California, have passed Tobacco 21 bills to raise the legal age of purchasing tobacco.
In total,18 states plus the District of Columbia have successfully passed Tobacco 21 bills, in addition to hundreds of municipal governments across the country. And given the bipartisan and extensive support for raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products, we can expect to see even more states in the coming years enact similar laws.
Tobacco 21 even has the support of tobacco companies and farmers, who realize it’s in their long-term interest to support measures to decrease tobacco use amongst kids and only sell their products to adults.
So, why isn’t Congress moving Tobacco 21?
That’s a good question. Even though there’s wide bipartisan support, Congress hasn’t had a great track record lately of working together to get things done. An extensive analysis conducted byThe Washington Post and ProPublica found that the transformation from a deliberative body to a legislative graveyard was sparked by hyper-polarization, which has accelerated rapidly since the 2008 election of President Barack Obama and the tea party movement that developed as a response. It states, “During that time, as the political center has largely evaporated, party leaders have adhered to the demands of their bases, while rules and traditions that long encouraged deliberative deal-making have given way to partisan gridlock.”
This tracks with a study conducted by Michigan State University, which found that the partisan divide in Congress is the worst it has ever been. This new reality makes it exceedingly difficult to achieve any progress on legislative issues – even if it could help stop the epidemic of underage use of e-vapor products.
With Congress back at work this week, there are plenty of difficult issues they’ll have to address – but Tobacco 21 isn’t one of them. There’s no excuse for Republican and Democratic leaders not to take this step in putting the health and wellness of the American people first and make Tobacco 21 the first thing on the agenda next week instead of more of the same gridlock.
Katlyn Batts is the Chairwoman of the Wingate University College Republicans and an employee of the Jesse Helms Center.